The San Francisco 49ers are getting set to take on Washington later today and One thing we all know going into this: 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan and Washington owner Dan Snyder don’t play nice. They don’t like each other. At all.
Case in point: Shanahan’s quote this week on what he liked about working as the offensive coordinator in Washington:
What was the best part about coaching in Washington?
“Being able to work with my dad and be around some other good coaches.”
What was the worst part?
“Everything else. I liked a lot of the players, some good people.”
Wow. Usually there’s some poker face in these conversations and the media has to fight to get any sort of juicy info out. No fighting here. So how did all of this start? Well I’m here to take you wayyyy back and outline all of this.
2008: Mike Shanahan is fired from the Broncos
After turning in two Super Bowl championships, Mike Shanahan’s Denver Broncos began to sputter. This was thanks largely in part to the retirement of quarterback John Elway in 1998. Following the loss of his quarterback, Mike Shanahan amassed only one playoff win in four postseason appearances. There’s also the six years the Broncos didn’t make the playoffs at all. Add it all together, 10 years of subpar football. That was enough for a two-peating Super Bowl winning coach, and Shanahan was fired to close out the season.
Meanwhile, in Houston
The same year his dad was canned, Kyle Shanahan had been promoted to offensive coordinator with the Houston Texans, replacing Mike Sherman who went to be head coach at Texas A&M.
Kyle Shanahan began with the Texans as the wide receivers coach, moved on to quarterbacks and turned down an offer to go to the University of Minnesota to be their offensive coordinator. Kyle Shanahan’s plan was to be an NFL head coach. Offensive coordinator of the Texans, under Gary Kubiak no less, was the best path to that goal. Kubiak himself served under Mike Shanahan in the early 2000s, winning two Super Bowls as offensive coordinator.
2010: Hellllloooooooo Washington
After one year off, Mike Shanahan was considered one of the hot coaching candidates after his removal in Denver. The Buffalo Bills were interested, but the winner was Washington, owned by Dan Snyder. Mike Shanahan was announced as head coach on January 5, 2010. He was also named vice president of football operations, which gave him the powers of a general manager.
Washington also hired an actual general manager, Bruce Allen whose last GM gig was with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2008. Despite his final 9-7 record, the Buccaneers chose to go in another direction and released both Allen and head coach Jon Gruden.
Washington owner Dan Snyder’s plan was for Allen and Shanahan to share the responsibilities of an actual GM, with Shanahan getting final say.
That wasn’t it for this new coaching staff, Kyle Shanahan left the Texans to join his father in Washington as offensive coordinator. A move that led to criticism for the nepotism look it generated.
The Shanahans didn’t start too hot. In their inaugural season, Washington went 6-10. 2011 wasn’t much better with the team going 5-11. One of these losses was with 0 points of offense put up against the Buffalo Bills. Not good for a team with an offensive genius as head coach and his kid as the offensive coordinator.
On the outside, Mike Shanahan was running things while Kyle Shanahan continued gaining experience as an offensive coordinator. On the inside, it was a very different situation. Kyle Shanahan was seen by many as the head coach of the team. There was a problem with this, Kyle Shanahan was rubbing many people the wrong way. Later on there was some ironic criticism of the actual coaching staff. From that same article linked above:
Quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur worked with Kyle Shanahan in Houston and had only two years experience as an “offensive assistant” with the Texans prior to becoming the [Washington] QB coach. Similarly, receivers coach Mike McDaniel was a lower-level assistant on the Texans staff before coming to Washington . Tight ends coach Sean McVay’s only prior NFL experience to joining Washington came in 2008 as an offensive assistant in Tampa.
Two out of three of those names are head coaches now.
Keep in mind, a lot of how this team was run was being hush-hush in 2010. The above article was not published until 2013, long after the next chapter in our story:
2012: Enter the RGIII
The 2012 draft had a quarterback duo not seen since Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf. Both Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III were seen as the top quarterback prospects. Luck was the obvious first pick by just about everyone with little question, but RGIII was seen as the clear-cut No. 2.
Holding the No. 2 pick was the then-St. Louis Rams. They had already done this quarterback-No. 1-pick-thing a few years back with Sam Bradford, so they struck a deal with Washington. In the 2012 offseason, and after compiling 11 wins total in two seasons, Washington gave up three first rounders and a second rounder to move up and get Griffin.
Also selected the fourth round of that same draft was Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins. The pick was baffling to say the least, especially when considering the real estate Washington gave up to get Griffin. Mike Shanahan saw it as an insurance policy for Griffin.
Griffin was the star, at least in owner Snyder’s eyes. And Snyder would offer Griffin preferential treatment. This was something not only causing locker room resentment, but also resentment from Mike Shanahan (and Kyle Shanahan by extension). The friendship from owner to star player isn’t a new one, but this particular relationship was something that would seep into the culture of the building.
The season begins
Mike Shanahan devised an offense for Griffin that ran off of play action and read option, allowing Griffin to use his legs and make quick reads before taking off. The result was a 10-win season and an NFC east division title his rookie year. It wasn’t without issues. On the way to those 10-wins, Griffin sustained a knee injury and Cousins was called in for a start of his own in Week 14.
Playing things a bit more traditional, Cousins completed 26 of 37 passes (70.27 completion percentage) for 329 yards, two touchdowns, one interception, and a 104.4 passer rating. It seemed like a successful debut for Cousins. Especially when you consider Kyle Shanahan was transparent with the quarterback on the intentions to develop and trade. With the front office, it was a bit more complicated. Snyder was reported to be enamored with Griffin and when Cousins had what was perceived a very successful and impressive first game (that won it for Washington no less), Snyder wouldn’t even speak to him.
Snyder and Allen instead spoke to Griffin, trying to calm him down. Griffin was beyond annoyed that Cousins would get the start over him. The locker room saw it, and they were furious. Mike Shanahan confronted Snyder on the issue and warned him that actions like that were a good way to lose the locker room.
Griffin returned to finish the season, as Mike Shanahan said his knee had healed, but controversy surrounded the return. Mike Shanahan had said at some points that Dr. James Andrews cleared Griffin to play, but Andrews said nothing of the sort. Regardless of Andrews’ blessings, Griffin was slated to play against the Seattle Seahawks.
Behind the scenes, there was a lot more going on. Shanahan was fed up with the treatment Griffin was receiving. In advance of a playoff game against Seattle, Mike Shanahan was reported to be cleaning out his office in advance, with intents to leave. Dan Graziano wrote a great piece on this (which I have linked above):
The source said Shanahan had grown tired of the way Snyder empowered Griffin and openly esteemed him above all other players. Shanahan didn’t blame Griffin but did blame Snyder for creating an atmosphere that Shanahan did not believe was conducive to winning. Shanahan privately told people close to him that he felt Snyder’s behavior with regard to Griffin was a “complete farce.”
Washington met the Seattle Seahawks in the divisional round of the playoffs. The game began as a route of the Seahawks, but Griffin suffered a knee injury during the game. Cousins came in for a spell, but then Griffin re-entered the game only to tear both his LCL and ACL. There was a lot of finger pointing, especially at Mike Shanahan where many asked why Mike Shanahan would let Griffin re-enter the game after A: hobbling after a hit that very day and B: not being cleared to play in the first place from that knee injury. As Graziano pointed out, that changed Mike Shanahan’s plans. He wasn’t going to leave because of the perception that he left because of Griffin’s injury.
2013 Gooooodbyyyyyyeeeee Washington
While Mike Shanahan returned, there was speculation on if Griffin would be ready at the start of the season. Behind the scenes, Griffin was fed up with the read option offense that Mike and Kyle Shanahan had installed and demanded during a meeting with family present to be made a pocket passer. Mike Shanahan stated later in interviews that doing so was a bad idea, as becoming a pocket passer takes a load of time.
“If Kirk [Cousins] doesn’t have to run it,” Griffin said, per Mike Shanahan in an ESPN interview, “then why do I have to?”
Make matters worse, it was believed Griffin’s demands were nothing more than the result of puppeteering by Snyder—and Allen by extension. The language used and the manner of which Griffin demanded to be a dropback passer screamed Snyder per reports. Mike Shanahan immediately confronted Snyder on the issues, warning him of what it would do to the team—and Griffin’s career by extension. Adding to the issues was Kyle Shanahan coaching Griffin up by telling him to play faster, read one side of the field, etc.
Years later, Griffin called his meeting with Shanahan a “misconception.”
Griffin struggled as the season went on and did not turn in numbers like 2012, eventually being shut down for the final three games of the season in favor of Kirk Cousins. Washington went 3-13 , last place of the NFC East. As you might expect, both Shanahans were fired by Snyder.
Meanwhile in Washington, Griffin flamed out and eventually lost his job to Cousins permanently in 2015.
When 2016 rolled around, Griffin was released while Cousins was set to become a free agent. Instead of a contract, Washington placed the franchise tag on Cousins for 2016. That year, Cousins went on to become quite the quarterback, finishing 2016 seventh in completion percentage and leading Washington to an 8-7-1 record under Jay Gruden. Washington still didn’t budge on a long-term extension for Cousins and his future was up in the air. Washington’s offers to keep Cousins were “insulting,” with $12 million a year being the offer while Cousins wanted a three-year $19 million per. The team felt they hadn’t seen enough and Cousins had only played “nine good games.”
After his two year stint in Atlanta, Kyle Shanahan was hired by the San Francisco 49ers in 2017. First order of business was to figure out the offense. Colin Kaepernick was on the roster, but Shanahan wanted to run a traditional drop-back offense that wasn’t suited for Kaepernick’s skillset. Kaepernick opted out of his contract rather than be cut. The door was open for Kirk Cousins in 2017. He was already franchised once, and Washington still hadn’t inked him to that extension.
Privately, Cousins said that he had no problem reuniting with Kyle Shanahan. He also made it clear he desired being somewhere he was wanted.
Dan Snyder and Bruce Allen both knew this. They also knew what Cousins could do in the Shanahan offense and the permanent turn of the fans if the 49ers succeeded. So for the first time in NFL history, a quarterback was franchised in repeat years. Whether this was truly out of spite has never been confirmed, but that kept Cousins from coming to the 49ers in free agency and helping kickstart the offense and the Kyle Shanahan era.
Instead, Kyle Shanahan was stuck with Bryan Hoyer. The new plan was to get Cousins in 2018 for free agency.
Will these two groups play nice? Probably not. Will we ever know what happened behind closed doors? Maybe one day.
The funny thing is that while the 49ers were after Cousins and Washington went out of its way to stop it, Jimmy Garoppolo found his way to the 49ers and may have been the better option all along. For the 49ers it wound up working out for the better. Had Washington let Cousins walk in 2017, the 49ers probably wouldn’t have made the trade for Garoppolo.
TL:DR: The Shanahans and Washington don’t play nice.